FORGIVENESS WITHOUT REPENTANCE?

T. PIERCE BROWN

Many of my brethren whom I respect most highly as scholarly, learned men, and with whom I stand on most things I hear them express (not because I follow them, or they follow me, but because we both have arrived at the same conclusion by careful analysis of God’s Word) take the position that one can not forgive a brother if he does not repent. Some of the reasons given for that conclusion are: “Even God cannot forgive one who does not repent,” and “Forgiveness must be accepted before it is actually forgiveness.”

I believe that conclusion needs to be restated and clarified for some of the following reasons: 1. Man can do some things God cannot.  2. Both above statements relate to God’s forgiveness, not man’s. 3. God’s forgiveness is different than man’s forgiveness.

Let us examine each of those above statements. It is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:7) or do anything else unjust or improper. So, while we might say that it is IMPROPER for man to forgive without penitence on the part of the guilty party, the impossibility of God doing it has nothing to do with the proof.

Second, God’s forgiveness must be accepted before the man is forgiven of his sins, but that is not because of the basic meaning of the term “forgiveness,” but because of the nature of God’s forgiveness. The basic meaning of the term, forgiveness, is “to give up any claim for requital for wrong done.” I think this is usually spoken of as “having a forgiving attitude,” rather than “forgiving” by my esteemed brethren. But I think most of them have failed to make a proper distinction between “judicial forgiveness” and “personal forgiveness.”

Third, notice some differences between God’s forgiveness and man’s. God alone can forgive sins (Luke5: 21). Man can only forgive a wrong done to him. The guilt, the consequences and the punishment are all forgiven when God forgives, and the nature of the forgiven one is changed. This is not so in man’s forgiveness. God’s forgiving is judicial. Man’s is personal. It would help us understand that distinction if we could think of a judge on the bench who had the responsibility of passing sentence on a man who had killed his good friend, even if it were his own son who is being sentenced. His son repents in bitter tears and asks his father to forgive him. He does so. But then he sentences the son to die in the electric chair! He cannot properly pardon him judicially, though he can personally, for justice demands that sin be punished. This is true whether we think of justice in the courts of earth or of heaven.

Thank God for the marvel of God’s gracious plan of redemption. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom.6:23). Through Jesus, the justice of the law can be fulfilled and the penalty paid, while the perpetrator of the crime can go free! Praise God! It cannot be done properly under man’s system of government.

My final proof that man CAN forgive a person who does not repent (which has nothing to do with whether he SHOULD always do so) is found in Luke 17:4, “And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, ‘I repent’; thou shalt forgive him.” The truth of the matter is, you can not tell whether he actually repents or not at that point! But God COMMANDS you to forgive him if he SAYS, “I repent.” God does not forgive him unless he actually repents, but you can, and in fact, must, if he INDICATES that he repents. This simply means that you “give up any claim to requital for wrong done” and has nothing to do with getting rid of the man’s guilt or changing his nature.

The difference between my conclusion and that of my more astute brethren may be largely one of semantics, having to do with the way one defines “forgiveness,” but it is my judgment that part of the difference is in what I call “judicial” and “personal” forgiveness — a distinction that I have not heard them make.

I think it would actually be WRONG, in some cases, for us to forgive a person who did not give evidence of repentance, for it would imply that he did not need to, or that sin was not too important. I refuse to baptize a person, for example, who is openly living in adultery. But I am confident that I have baptized some who had committed adultery, but had not repented. If I did, God did not forgive them, although as far as I was aware or concerned, they were forgiven!

Even if you do not agree with my conclusions, this may cause you to re-examine your own attitude. Do not try to play God if a person does you wrong. Simply does what God said do. If he sins against you seven times in a day and seven times turns and says, “I repent,” you must forgive him if you follow God’s word. I personally have trouble with that. After the second time, I have a tendency to start keeping count, and especially after 490 (Mt.18:22), I might quit! How about you? Of course I am not suggesting that Jesus meant that we should keep a record and be able to tell when the 490th time came. But I am to forgive if he asks for forgiveness and says he has repented.

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